Security software is still the lock on your PC's front door, but we have some tricks to make your front door a little less attractive to crooks.
Let's talk about security hacks—simple yet clever ways to protect yourself in the physical and cyber worlds that cost little or nothing.
The premise behind tricks like this is not that any one—or even all—of them is guaranteed to protect you thoroughly, but rather that each of them will make stealing your system or data difficult or unappealing. It should go without saying that neither one nor all of these can replace good, up-to-date antivirus and firewall protection.
The classic non-tech security trick is using motion detection spotlights or lights on a timer—even fake video cameras or surveillance warning signage—to give the impression that your home or business is occupied. No thief actually wants to be seen, and few want to chance confrontation. Along similar lines, there are easy and free ways to make your computer and data less available to thieves.
1. A surprisingly effective PC security trick is simply to remove the keyboard and mouse. I discovered this when the keyboard on my laptop died and I had to use an external keyboard for a while. It's highly unlikely that a snoop will carry an extra keyboard and mouse with him. This will slow someone down but is far from foolproof, and it should go without saying that every computer should be physically locked to a sturdy object and secured behind a strong password.
2. To protect from podslurping (the connecting of an unauthorized USB device and its use to steal data), disable your USB ports. Or—and we borrowed this one directly from the U.S. military—epoxy over the USB ports. Too permanent? A slightly more elegant solution is to open the PC case and disconnect (or cut) the wires running from the motherboard to the USB ports.
3. Traveling with a laptop? Try not to advertise that you're carrying a valuable piece of equipment: Use a computer bag that doesn't look like a computer bag, or use a neoprene sleeve inside a regular backpack. If you nap at the airport, wrap the shoulder strap around your arm or leg so you'll be alerted if someone tries to walk away with your bag.
4. Here's an easy way to hide your Windows PC on a network while maintaining access to network resources. (This also works when you want stealth but still want to let others access your shared resources.) At the command prompt, type Net config server /hidden:yes. Now you're still a member of your network neighborhood but your PC won't show up when others browse for it. Make sure your software firewall is turned on, and block incoming ICMP traffic. This will prevent a network intruder from scanning for your PC using a ping sweep.
Once you are hidden on the network, you can spend some time trying to figure out who—if anyone—is connecting to your PC and to whom your PC is connecting. To accomplish this, you'll use the command-line tool Netstat and the Task Manager. Get to the command prompt and type netstat –ao. A bunch of info will flash by on your screen listing the type of connection, the IP addresses of remote hosts, the protocols, and the process identifier, or PID. If there's something here you don't recognize, write down the PID. Now, open the Task Manager and add the PID column by opening the View menu and clicking on Select Columns. Check the box next to PID. Now match the PID from Netstat and the PID from Task Manager to learn which applications are holding which ports open. A well-secured machine should have ports open only for authorized apps.
5. One last idea: Enabling secure log-on in Windows XP and Vista will protect your system from malware that attempts to impersonate a log-on screen to steal system passwords. This forces anyone trying to log on to press Ctrl-Alt-Del first. In Windows Vista, open the Run command, type netplwiz, and click Continue when prompted by User Account Control. In the Advanced User Account window, click the Advanced tab, then select the box that says Require users to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete. In Windows XP, go to the Control Panel's User Accounts applet. In the Advanced User Account window, click the Advanced tab, then select the box that says Require users to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete.